The Chill 4: Who is the protagonist?

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Classically, novels have a protagonist who goes out, pursues a goal, and changes things in the process. Lew Archer doesn't really fit that mould: rather than changing things, he's uncovering things. He doesn't actually do very much. In fact, he's haunted by his major failure to protect Helen at the start of the book. 

Archer is also very much a blank slate. He has no connection to anyone in the case before the book starts, he has no relevant backstory, and he makes virtually no real emotional connections to anyone in the case. That makes things dispassionate, and may make it easier for the reader to identify with Archer.

Instead, things are kicked off by Dolly's investigations into her past when her father re-appears, and the coincidentally-timed attempt by Roy Bradshaw to marry Laura Sutherland without Mrs Bradshaw killing her.

Could the novel have been retold from either of their perspectives? Should it have been?

Does Archer's role as an outsider make the situation easier to understand for the reader? Does Archer's lack of emotional engagement strengthen or weaken the book?

Comments

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    The voice creates a reader who is likewise dis-engaged from the action. I think in classic RPG (D&D) gaming this is part of why so many sessions are, to be blunt, boring - the DM / narrator isn't speaking as the character, but as someone like Lew Archer, in an effort to be 'neutral' as to outcomes. I prefer an antogonist (not necessarily evil, just in some way opposed) with whom I can interact. Lew is an isolated individual, which is an easy sell for anyone who has to put up with a job.

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    I do think Archer is the protagonist. He discovers a mystery, and seeks to solve it, so he has a goal. Even though he's technically for hire, for part of the novel he really isn't for hire - he's working for himself, because he's interested, and because he can tell things aren't right, and furthermore, he's worried about Alex and Dolly. He also forms a relationship with Helen, however brief, and feels that she must be done right by.

    Also, he's not a complete outsider, since he has a local posse in the form of the lawyer, and in the fellow PI in Reno. But he's an outsider to all the people inside the tangled web.

    That's really very much like an RPG - the player-characters being outsiders who stumble upon a situation and then try to solve it. This is an easy way to run games, because it's low prep. When everyone is an insider, they need to have inside knowledge, which means the players need to develop or bone up on their background. Very few players want to do this, so it makes a lot more sense to set up situations where the player-characters are outside, and the player (i.e. the reader) can learn about the local situation by interacting with people (NPCs).

    This, by the way, is also the classic Sword and Sorcery setup - an outsider arrives, discovers a problem, and tried to solve it. In S&S, the problem-solving is usually more self-serving than altruistic, but I think we could argue that Archer was working this case for personal reasons at least as much as moral reasons.

    I think a re-telling from Laura's perspective would be very interesting. Less so from Dolly's. Laura is also an outsider, really, and she has much more to lose by finding out the truth behind the Bradshaws.

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    The voice creates a reader who is likewise dis-engaged from the action.

    Yes, I was exactly like this. I kind of stopped caring about all of them, and (as I have said several times now) just enjoyed the writing.

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    @RichardAbbott said:

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    The voice creates a reader who is likewise dis-engaged from the action.

    Yes, I was exactly like this. I kind of stopped caring about all of them, and (as I have said several times now) just enjoyed the writing.

    In the interest of discussion, would having an emotionally-engaged viewpoint character have changed your opinion? Would, for instance, a book from Dolly's or Alex's point of view have kept your interest more?

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    @NeilNjae said:
    In the interest of discussion, would having an emotionally-engaged viewpoint character have changed your opinion? Would, for instance, a book from Dolly's or Alex's point of view have kept your interest more?

    That's a really interesting question, analogous to the one we have in another thread about having the "same" story but told with different underlying motivations / universe assumptions. I also don't really know how to answer it!

    Was it Archer's PoV that detached me from the story, and would some other PoV have given me a different reaction? Or was it my impression that the characters were all rather detached from each other? - even the ones who were supposed to have strong feelings. Did Alex and Dolly feel like newlyweds? Well, no, not to me... but was all this simply filtered through Archer's lens? Or the cultural lens of the society in question, which maybe did not encourage deep feeling and intimacy (of any kind, I mean, not just sexual).

    I guess I never felt drawn in to the situation being portrayed, as though it didn't have enough internal strength to make me believe in it as a kind of alternate reality. This contrasts quite starkly with other recent reads like, say, Dark Orbit, or The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, or The Land God gave to Cain, each of which in their own way left me with the feeling of being quite real.

    I'm not sure that I have articulated my response very well, and will ponder it again over the next day or so.

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    @RichardAbbott said:

    Was it Archer's PoV that detached me from the story, and would some other PoV have given me a different reaction? Or was it my impression that the characters were all rather detached from each other? - even the ones who were supposed to have strong feelings. Did Alex and Dolly feel like newlyweds? Well, no, not to me... but was all this simply filtered through Archer's lens? Or the cultural lens of the society in question, which maybe did not encourage deep feeling and intimacy (of any kind, I mean, not just sexual).

    I can agree with all that. I think Archer is very dispassionate and looks at events in that way. I think some of the text acknowledges that people have very strong feelings (Alex and Alice come to mind) but Archer is dismissive of these emotions. This may be something laudable in an investigator, but I can see how it leads to an un-engaging narrative.

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    @NeilNjae said:
    In the interest of discussion, would having an emotionally-engaged viewpoint character have changed your opinion? Would, for instance, a book from Dolly's or Alex's point of view have kept your interest more?

    First off - I was interested enough to read to the end of the book. Lots of good stuff - writing, plotting, etc., but my initial reaction once done reading was that while the parts were all good, somehow the whole was not. Not really finished thinking about this, but I think it has something to do with the lack of connection among the parts.

    For example, none of the characters (with one exceptional pair-bond who are bad because of their 'love') seemed that involved with any of the others - they were all self-oriented in their motivation, and had no real interest in anyone else's aims and motivations. Many were emotional, but they too were not connected, e.g Alex and Dolly didn't seem like overwhelmed lovers. So I think it would be more accurate to say that I would like a voice expressing a more integral connection among and across the characters, and characters with such connections among themselves. The only folks with connection are exploded at the end. I suppose their hate is a connection built on an earlier love which is its reason, so perhaps their voice, but they were liars. While I agree that it often seems that "hell is other people," likewise heaven (friendship). I sadly think this story 'works' only by presenting characters who are massively reduced from what people naturally are - connected with one another. The work the text accomplishes is producing an unnatural isolated reader, by speaking wholly as an unnatural isolated narrator who pays no attention to connection other than to denigrate it. Only an opinion of course.

    Anyway, I ended with a feeling that the stance of the text is that it is connection that makes people mad. Thinking out loud, I think perhaps Archer is a nihilistic narrator, and the stance of the book corrosive for the reader.

    Side-thought - how trustworthy do PCs and GMs have to be for play to work?

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    Anyway, I ended with a feeling that the stance of the text is that it is connection that makes people mad. Thinking out loud, I think perhaps Archer is a nihilistic narrator, and the stance of the book corrosive for the reader.

    Interesting thoughts, thank you. I don't have much to say in response, except to agree that the book puts forward an atomised view of society. The book is populated by people with one or two strong connections. There's no wider community, whether it supports or subjugates people within it.

    (In many ways, The Chill is a typical Ross Macdonald book, so I wouldn't recommend you read his other works!)

    Side-thought - how trustworthy do PCs and GMs have to be for play to work?

    GM and players: yes, absolutely must be trustworthy. NPCs don't need to be trustworthy at all. But I think it's helpful if the PCs are basically trustworthy, as that allows relationships between them to form and be the basis of engaging play. If they're not, you end up with a series of one:one games around the table, which I think misses out much of the fun of RPGs.

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    @NeilNjae said:
    ... agree that the book puts forward an atomised view of society. The book is populated by people with one or two strong connections. There's no wider community, whether it supports or subjugates people within it.

    (In many ways, The Chill is a typical Ross Macdonald book, so I wouldn't recommend you read his other works!)

    I actually found the book a good read, but it left a bitter aftertaste, which is I think due more to the rest of the stuff I read. I think it was pretty good in its genre.

    But is this a Ross Macdonald book, or it just the only kind of thing that gets published? Is this what Ross Macdonald says when not being an 'author'? Writers ("successful" writers, published writers) adjust themselves to the market, and we can't expect people to understand what their pay-cheque depends on not understanding, nor act against that misunderstanding, can we? Being entertained (rather than playing, which is entertaining ourselves) has become the centre of our economic society. Maybe I'm missing something, but there doesn't seem to be a diverse 'ecosystem' of public expression right now, and that is related to the control of what is disseminated in the public sphere, and this is a part of that, no matter how 'personal' it is taken to be.

    This is what interests me about stories and gaming now - people expect to be entertained, and everything public is being directed towards that goal. I find this kind of corrosiveness is pervasive in what is published and marketed in all areas of secular society. As an occasional thing I don't think corrosive thought is unhealthy, but as the core of a diet, I think it will make us sick. Like chocolate bars, chips, and coke.

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    edited September 13

    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    This is what interests me about stories and gaming now - people expect to be entertained, and everything public is being directed towards that goal. I find this kind of corrosiveness is pervasive in what is published and marketed in all areas of secular society. As an occasional thing I don't think corrosive thought is unhealthy, but as the core of a diet, I think it will make us sick. Like chocolate bars, chips, and coke.

    Hence, perhaps, the rise of self-publishing books. It not only provides complete control over the content (which, depending on the author, might be a good or a bad thing) but it also encourages cross-genre books. The publishing industry (and to an extent online vendors such as Amazon) like to be able to classify books by genre, and therefore savvy professionally published authors tend, exactly as you say, to play by the rules of that particular game. Very few self-published authors become fabulously rich and famous - but then, very few trad published authors do either :smile: - but at least they get the satisfaction of writing and offering whatever they want.

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